Seems as though there’s long been a country element to Newport’s punk scene, or a punk element to its country scene. Either way, there’s a healthy cross-pollination that winds through the music of Jon Langford (amongst others), the releases of Diverse Records and the tireless promotional work of Gathered In Song. Bands like Columbus, Ohio’s TWO COW GARAGE are kind of a natural fit around South-East Wales, then. Fierce, ragged-voiced blue-collar country-punk (‘cowpunk’ always makes me wince for some reason) that can sound driven and impassioned but also has a laconic frustration with small-town America and small-time relationships, there’s plenty of examples online as to why they’re well worth the short train journey to Le Pub this Bank Holiday Monday. RIYL Richmond Fontaine, Replacements, Drive-By Truckers, Wilco, Dinosaur Jr etc.
Cracking support bill too, high in quality but nicely varied. I shan’t try and second-guess whether DEER PARK will be a full band or just Mark Grassick solo, as was the case on the recent Singing Adams tour, but his bruised Americana and Dublin twang and witty, cutting lyricism are equally effective in stark solo mode. Reminiscent of Will Sheff or John Darnielle, neither of which are compliments to be bandied about lightly. Nestled in between those two with a nice stylistic left-turn are THE KEYS, who turn up all over the place in the next few weeks as they release Bitten By Wolves, a swift full-length follow-up to Fire Inside (which, it now seems, is deemed a mini-album; no mention of 2002′s debut). Lovely chewy psych-pop, sunny harmonies and British Invasion-timestamped tunes. Reliably untethered live, too. Nice to see Newport’s own LT. MEAT opening up; his splendidly deadpan patter and warped guitar n’ laptop surf-rock giddiness is top fun, so get there early for this and for the Daniel Higgs Trio show at 10 Feet Tall on the 28th where he’ll make a welcome return to Cardiff. Faultless line-up and cheap entry, let’s hope this one gets the local enthusiasm it deserves.
TWO COW GARAGE
Le Pub, Caxton Place, Newport
Monday 25th April / 8pm / £6
I hear a Two Cow Garage song, and I hear an unembellished, unapologetic story from a real day in a real person’s life. I hear about passions, dreams, determinations and setbacks. I hear about loneliness. I hear about relationships – some that work out, others that don’t. I hear about kids growing up in a dreary Anytown of mediocrity, resolute to break free of the mire that bogs their peers in dead-end lives. I hear about me. I hear about my friends. I hear about the wall against our back. And I can totally relate.
Though they spend far more days on the road — on their way from the last show, on their way to the next — than they do at home, Two Cow Garage hail from Columbus, Ohio. Among many locals (and visitors, for that matter), Columbus is known as “Cowtown.” This is because, according to guitarist/vocalist Micah Schnabel, “if you drive five minutes out of the city, any which direction, you’re gonna be in cornfields and cows and the whole deal.” Musically, Micah’s band plays a blaring, tight, nasty manner of…eh, let’s call it “podunk punk” for lack of anything better, that wouldn’t sound out of place shuddering the walls of a converted garage/practice space at the end of the cul de sac you just zoomed past on your way outta town. So, yeah, their name fits. But that’s insignificant.
The new, second album by Two Cow Garage is called The Wall Against Our Back. That’s significant, not just because it’s also the title of one of the album’s best songs, but because it describes the determination, in the face of obstacles aplenty, to rise above which informs so many of the album’s tracks. There’s no turning back. “I think that song just kinda wraps up where we stand right now — poor and busting our ass,” drummer Dustin Harigle says of the title track. “It’s amazing how fast you grow up when you don’t know where you’re gonna eat the next day.”
The trio’s debut album, 2002’s Please Turn the Gas Back On (poor and busting their asses back then as well, obviously) was written in the basement, while the members were just on either edge of age 20, before they had started touring, before they had quite gotten confident with their sound and their statements. Though a fine album, it was perhaps somewhat unrepresentative, tending to emphasize the band’s more countrified influences rather than the rawboned rock ‘n’ roll they crank out at their gigs.
The Wall Against Our Back was written mostly on the road, and it shows. Produced by Brent Best of Two Cow’s drinkin’ pals (and frequent tourmates) Slobberbone, their sophomore shot kicks in with the potent, scorched ‘n’ scarred ferocity that rarely translates outside of a go-fer-broke set at any night’s given dive. Musically, the songs are muscular but diverse, showcasing the many factions within Two Cow’s sound, while maintaining allimportant focus. And there’s a palpable, cocksure chemistry to the performances which can’t be faked – it can only be honed by night after night after night of slamming through your songs in front of pockets of otherwise distracted drunks who may or may not care if you’re even alive.
Two Cow Garage have made quite a reputation for being road warriors, touring like crazy (over 332,000 miles between two vans in about two years), not letting up, not getting discouraged. From my observations, a lot of bands at their level – after releasing one VERY independent CD — don’t put as much into that. They feel they need to hold on to their day jobs, or college, or relationships, etcetera… there’s always some excuse or reason holding them back. “All valid excuses!” Schnabel cracks. Sure, but the problem is, those bands then put their focus on playing the same old local clubs every other week or so, and usually get nowhere. Two Cow Garage were determined to not do that. Luckily, they found a huge fan early on in Chris Flint, a Columbus attorney who swiftly became the band’s manager and part-time guitarist, insisting that the Garage hit the road with a vengeance. But another factor lighting a fire under their asses was the threat of ending up back where they’d come from, like everyone else they grew up with.
Lancaster and Bucyrus are tiny Ohio towns where farming and manufacturing provide the primary economy. Lancaster, where Two Cow bassist/vocalist Shane Sweeney was raised, boasts a glass factory. In Bucyrus, where Dustin and Micah were childhood friends, it’s a ball bearing plant. “And there’s one person in every home who works there,” says 23-year-old Harigle. “My dad. Micah’s mom…”
“That was the inspiration for a lot of the band throwing ourselves so into it,” Sweeney, 25, pipes in. “Just wanting to do anything BUT go do that — end up in a factory five days a week for the rest of our lives.” Musically, not much cool or hip reached those towns, “so we had either our parents’ music to choose from, or the stuff on MTV,” says Schnabel, 22. “And I think all of us chose the stuff our parents listened to.” Which tended to be a mix of older country stuff, classic rock and, in Dustin’s case, a bunch of spandex metal power ballads. The latter genre has yet to seep its way into the Two Cow Garage musical stew, but of course there’s still plenty of time for that. This is a band unafraid to whip out the odd cover song or three during its sets. Typically, these run the gamut from Billy Joe Shaver’s “Georgia on a Fast Train” to Bad Company’s “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” Neil Young’s ragged “Fuckin’ Up” and an absolutely smokin’ version of the Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down.”
There are two cover songs on The Wall Against Our Back, but neither one was written by quite so prominent an artist. “Alphabet City” was penned by Todd May, formerly of Columbus alt-country hopefuls the Lilybandits and a songwriter who often finds backing by Two Cow Garage at his occasional gigs. And “Hillbilly” comes from another of Two Cow’s hometown buddies, Sean Beal, who once led a band called Big Back Forty, of whom Schnabel testifies: “When I was in high school, when I first found this kind of music, that was the band that made this music make so much sense to me. ’Cause it was real – it was very ‘where we’re from,’ you know. It was songs about where we’re from and where we grew up — it was about what was actually going on and happening. So I think he was a big influence on us. Probably one of the biggest. I love that song.”
The guys in Two Cow Garage have learned well from such examples. Their music is similarly very “where we’re from,” and very real. And while I can’t promise that you’ll relate as strongly as I do, I think there’s a good chance you will. Because, despite the overwrought ramblings about this new album that I’ve sputtered onto the page you’re grasping, The Wall Against Our Back is, when all is said and done, basically just a rockin’ little record full of all sorts of bitter revenge against all the assholes we went to high school with who always told us we’d never amount to shit, and all the girlfriends who’ve tossed us outta their apartment at three in the morning for no discernable reason, and all the pretentious dicks who’ll never appreciate the feel of a brand new July, and all the reasons you need to get up every day and bust your ass to prove them all wrong.
“Bingo!” confirms Schnabel, while Sweeney, accentuating the obvious, adds: “Isn’t that what all good songs are about?”
Jeff Clark, August 2004